The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Mockingjay pt1Last year at around this time, I reviewed  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and I discussed the impact of splitting films into separate parts with separate release dates. While not sold on the concept, I did give Smaug and director Peter Jackson credit for effectively demonstrating the merits of this controversial choice. I cannot say the same about the final chapter of Hunger Games series, Mockingjay.

Mockingjay picks up right where Catching Fire left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rescued by a rebel organization calling themselves The Mockingjay, after she brought down the arena’s force field at the end of the 75th Hunger Games. Tributes Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) were also rescued while Johanna (Jena Malone) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) were captured by the Capitol. The group is hiding out in the mysterious and mythical District 13 and are looking to unite the other districts in overthrowing the Capitol.

Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) along with Katniss’s family are among the thousands who managed to escape the Capitol to District 13. When District 13 president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) approaches Katniss to sign on as the face of the rebellion, Katniss responds with ferocity over Coin leaving Peeta behind. Still, upon seeing the ruins of her home District 12 and with the advice of ex-gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Haymitch, Katniss reluctantly agrees to be The Mockingjay for Coin’s rebel cause.

Unlike the first two installments, this film does not follow the familiar design of holding a reaping that leads to an enclosed arena battle. Here the world itself is the arena and it is a battle of ideologies, not just individuals. This bodes well on the surface as Mockingjay has an opportunity to be fresh, exciting, and perhaps even significant. Instead, Mockingjay is a far messier film than its predecessors, and the cause is the decision to split this story in half. A film about a dogmatic battle between characters as vibrant as these should resonate with intensity from start to finish. Instead, Mockingjay goes the Breaking Dawn route and draaaaaaaawwwwwsss out its first act knowing that it has all the satisfaction coming up next year. There are several scenes that could have easily been cut from this movie, but are added to pad running time. While this is a major fault and complaint, it is basically my only one. Mockingjay has some really insightful things to say about war and propaganda’s role in furthering a cause. I actually wish more time was spent on that idea than with overblown scenes of Katniss visiting her home or staring at rubble. It also is very well acted. Every role is filled out with a dynamic performance and every character is memorable and serves a purpose. As a set of films, this could have been a very solid trilogy with a biting finale. The choice to split it up will forever prevent these films from achieving that overall status; however, the extra half a billion dollars Part 2 fetches will probably keep that artistic integrity safely out of sight. So get ready for more films with titles that require a colon AND a hyphen. Of the three films in the series, this is the worst, but hopefully will give way to a superior conclusion. B

Mockingjay is rated PG-13 and somehow manages a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong (Screenplay) and Suzanne Collins (Novel, Adaptation)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

ImageFour years ago, I was having a conversation with some of my high school students regarding what books they like to read.  One fairly astute young man, whom I held in high regard, told me he was reading a book called The Hunger Games.  He said it was about a supposed utopian North American society that holds annual organized battles to the death to maintain order throughout the numerous districts.  It sounded interesting, but I was not that impressed as my critical mind, still reeling from the absurdity that was (and still is) the Twilight “saga,” began its prejudicial routine of condemning most young-adult literature as being dumbed down versions of classics in order to make cash grabs at an increasingly illiterate reader-population.  However, this one particular student’s recommendation obliged me to forgo my rant about Brave New World, The Giver, 1984, and the host of other “Big Brother is watching you…” examples and give this one a try.  Now, as the adaptation of the book series’ second novel comes to the big screen, I confess myself as a fan awaiting the return, with millions of others, of Katniss Everdean to the big screen.

2012’s The Hunger Games was a tremendous hit automatically green lighting the entire film franchise and splitting its final entry, Mockingjay, into two separate films.  This year’s film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (or Hunger Games: Fire by some people – you know who you are) is based on perhaps the best book of the trilogy and finds our heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back home in District 12 awaiting the annual victory tour that follows the 74th Hunger Games and precedes the 75th.  President Snow (Donald Sutherland) remains none too pleased as Katniss and Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) risky move in the previous games showed an unexpected weakness in his control and has sparked a sort of uprising in some of the poorer districts.  The 75th Hunger Games offers Snow an opportunity, as every 25 years marks a quarter-quell, a special competition that gives Snow and his new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a chance to even the score.

Much of what makes The Hunger Games: Catching Fire work comes from the source material.  This entry in the series has many more tricks up its sleeve than the previous film.  That being said, the trio of screen writers (including author Suzanne Collins herself) and new director, Francis Lawrence have noticeably shifted the film’s focus away from the characters and more to the atmosphere, themes, and events set in action from the first film.  In fact, the writing is bit edgier leading to some extra spirited dialogue especially from Peeta and Heavensbee.  Accordingly, this film has a different feel and agenda, which keeps the series fresh, but also may disquiet fans who want more Katniss.  That is not to say, Ms. Everdeen is not the film’s shining star, she is, and her love triangle between Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta continues to be provocative rather than stale and arbitrary.  Lawrence continues down her path to being the most beloved starlet of her generation by authentically representing Katniss’s struggle between newfound fame and inherent defiance.  Furthermore, she is supported by a very recognizable A-List cast.  However, saying much more about the cast or plot would ruin some of the film’s best surprises. 

One surprise worth ruining is Jena Malone’s role in the film.  It should come as no surprise that there is another reeping, and there is another host of tributes.  Malone plays the highly anticipated Johanna Mason from District 7, and she steals every scene she’s a part of – possibly making her the best new element of the film. 

Altogether, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a fine adaptation of Collins’s novel, and it is a highly entertaining film as well, ascetically edging out its predecessor.  The film’s nearly doubled budget from the original is obvious – the costumes pop, the effects are much better, the acting continues to be strong, and the ambitiousness of the film is far more evident.  A-

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 26 minutes.  It is a superior follow up to The Hunger Games and a phenomenal set-up to the series’ two-part conclusion.          

 

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